Mapping the Music of Coal

One of the goals of the After Coal project is to employ digital story telling technology to deepen connections between Appalachia and Wales.  Aaron Pardieu has been working on a “song map” that uses the Place Stories interface to enter music collected for After Coal on Google maps.  Aaron explains his work:

Greetings to the After Coal community!


Aaron Pardieu is currently working as an intern as the Appalshop Media Arts Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

Let me start by introducing myself. My name is Aaron Pardieu and I am a graduate student at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. While I have been living in the mountains of NC for roughly three years now, I am originally from Louisville, Kentucky and spent my college years in Richmond, KY. I am currently earning a Master of Arts in Appalachian Studies.

I began working with the After Coal team in January as a Graduate Assistant. What attracted me most to the After Coal project was its neutral tone. The project is focused on documenting solutions rather than the damage. Participatory revitalization projects are key to providing relief to both the Welsh and Appalachian regions.


PlaceStories Map Screen Shot

So far, my involvement with the project has focused on the music featured in After Coal. We selected six songs that we thought best represented the project and created short videos of the performances to be posted to Place Stories. The innovative site uses a Google maps interface to share stories between different communities around the world. The site was designed for use in rural communities with limited internet access, such as the coalfields of Appalachia and Wales.

The songs we selected include traditional work songs as well as original music by artists from both regions. Songs from the Appalachian region include Justin Taylor’s composition Better You Find My Devil, Lord performed by the cast of Higher Ground, a community based theater project in Harlan County, Kentucky and Coal Miners’ Blues performed by Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard, and Mike Seeger for an audience of miners in Onllwyn Wales. 

Songs from the United Kingdom include an original piece by Welsh artists Christopher Hastings and Huw Pudner titled The Gates of Cardiff Jail chronicling the worker uprising in the Welsh town of Merthyr in 1831, and Blackleg Miner, a union song from northeastern England that was featured in the 1990 documentary From the Shadows of Power by Jean Donahue. 

These short video clips provide great examples of how music helps build community. This concept of ‘community’ is valuable tool for building power in regions that face serious economic challenges from an increasingly globalized economy.

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Crossing borders, deepening exchange

After Coal producer Patricia Beaver and director Tom Hansell traveled to Wales early this month to screen a work in progress of the documentary. The pair returned to the communities where they recorded scenes for the upcoming film to get feedback. Tom Hansell writes about his experience:


The M4 expressway uses the Severn Bridge to cross the border between England and Wales.

The Severn Bridge crosses the border between England and Wales.

Crossing the Severn Bridge, I began to get nervous. Some of this nervousness had to do with driving in the left hand side of the road, which felt dangerous to my American brain. But the major source of my anxiety was our plan to screen a draft of our documentary to the people who appear in it and asking for their honest feedback.

Many documentary makers believe in keeping their work under wraps until it is finely polished. However, I was taught by the filmmakers at the Appalshop media arts center that the communities you work in are your most important audience.  While this participatory process can be time consuming and occasionally difficult, I still find it a necessary part of grounding my documentary projects, especially when I am working in a culture that I am not a part of, such as the former coalfields of South Wales.

Pat and I listened to many diverse perspectives in our series of screenings across the South Wales valleys. One of the most interesting groups we screened to was a mix of students, poets, and community sponsored by Merthyr Tydfil College.


director Tom Hansell enters the Red House

The screening took place in the newly renovated Red House – the old town hall and the site of the first democratic government in a town that had been dominated by the 19th century coal and steel barons who built Merthyr Tydfil. The mix of young and old in our focus group yielded interesting conversation. Many of the older folks had participated in the historic 1984 miners strike, while most of the students were born the following decade and knew little of the events.


The Red House in Merthyr Tydfill


In some ways, this generational shift is part of the shift from an industrial economy that built towns like Merthyr Tydfill. However, a shifting economic base is not easy to navigate, and many young people in Wales still struggle to find job opportunities. Some of the students we talked to were planning to move from their hometown to the coastal cities of Cardiff or Swansea in search of better opportunity. Richard Davies, the director of the media program at Merthyr Tydfill College, is one exception. After living away from Wales, he found his way back home and now works to create opportunities for young people to create artistic projects that perpetuate life and culture of Merthyr.

This place based approach to community building parallels to the work we do at the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University, as well as at our partner organizations such as the Appalshop media arts center in Whitesburg, KY.  As we shared ideas of how to reinvent coal communities with our focus groups in Wales, my nervousness dissipated and many wonderful conversations started. My hope is that these conversations will strengthen the connections between two deeply rich cultures.

- Tom Hansell, June 2014

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On Archives and Memories

by Angela Wiley

This morning at a coffee shop near Washington, D.C., I started talking with the person working across the table. As we wandered through talk about work projects, she remarked, “What’s really important, though, are the memories we make. Achievements are great, but if we leave no room to create memories with people, there is no point.” My name is Angela, and I have been working with After Coal since 2012. It hardly feels like work, so I drank up the words of coffee-shop-person-across-the-table and attached them to the archival memories I am sifting through, pulling apart, and stringing back together.

My interest in memory during the early months of this year involved combing through contemporary interviews, songs, and archival video that help tell the story of John Gaventa, Richard Greatrex, and Helen Lewis. A treasure trove of media and ephemera is housed in the Helen M. Lewis collection at Appalachian State University, and these materials are the foundation for my “reconstruction” of a shared memory. As I listen and read, it becomes clear that this trio’s experiences were never meant to be hidden, and that they were in the business of capturing shared memories of others. Now, I am a layer in the cake, so to speak.

In a practical sense, Gaventa, Greatrex and Lewis gathered stories from what would be the last generation of coal miners in South Wales. Meanwhile, bitter strikes in Wales and Appalachia offered a practical backdrop for the exchange of stories via video and conversation. Gaventa and Lewis were transplants from the U.S., while Greatrex acted as a local translator of sorts. In a 2013 interview, Greatrex illustrated the way work unfolded


Richard Greatrex, 2013.

John would come down from Oxford most weekends and we would troll off and find our subjects, again not with any great big over-arching concept, very much in that kind of anthropological “let’s find out what’s there”…And of course, because of Helen’s soft, calming touch getting to people wasn’t difficult at all, she was very much the front person for the relations with the local community. John was the organizer of things and I looked after that bloody equipment and lugged it around everywhere.


Helen Lewis follows Welsh miners underground, circa 1975. Screen captured from footage shot by Richard Greatrex.

Many of the “Welsh Tapes” offer footage from strike marches, tours from community members, and conversations in living rooms. Lewis had a particular interest in the women of coalfield communities, who were typically married to miners:

…I asked them if they would do an evening talking about what it was liked to be married to the macho Welshman miners. And so, Richard and I go to the house and the women and I are sitting around the kitchen table. And he is climbing the stairs and sitting up on the stairs kind of hiding, but with his camera. And we had this great discussion—which they really tell jokes and laugh and talk about their husbands and what it is like to be married to a Welshman coal miner, or coal truck driver.

The Welfare Hall, was a repeated location throughout the archive, and represented a community living room of sorts. Meetings among miners, band practices, and choir performances all take place in the hall. The location was also a stage for direct exchange through music.

An “American invasion” in South Wales included the Strange Creek Singers, a bluegrass band named for a town in the southern West Virginia coalfields. Their songs of spirit and struggle in Appalachia survived on video and now in digital form. With decades of distance from the filming project in South Wales, Gaventa was able to contextualize the power of exchange via music, transatlantic visits, and video sharing in a 2012 interview:



John Gaventa, 2012.

…The challenge these days is linking those enclaves and pockets of the global economy where resources are being extracted…they can be in Appalachia or Wales or Nigeria or Thailand or Malaysia or Chile. The answers aren’t going to come from a macro perspective I don’t think. I think they are going to come from a community’s perspective as communities try to come up with their solutions and able to exchange their answers with other similar situated parts of the world.

The exchange of videos, music, and stories helped document the last real generation of coal mining in Wales and in Appalachia. As mechanization took hold in both areas, and the Thatcher regime effectively halted production in Wales, both regions had to begin facing life after coal. What was recorded, learned, and compiled in the Helen Lewis Collection are threads that will be woven into a new record with the After Coal documentary. They paint an intimate portrait of a precise moment in time — and such detail can serve as a springboard for dialogue about continuing global issues.

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A Ukrainian Miner Speaks About Economic and Political Transition.

While listening to news of recent events in Ukraine, I remembered Valintin Chukalov, a Ukranian coal miner I met in 2000, when Appalshop filmmaker Herb E. Smith and I documented international mine safety workshops conducted by MSHA.  Valentin accompanied us on visits to several deep mines surrounding Donetsk, Ukraine.  This industrial city is the heart of the Donbas – the coal mining region of eastern Ukraine that is closely aligned with Russia.

In this interview Chukalov explains how the transition from the socialized mines of the Soviet era to private enterprise created serious problems for many coal miners and their families.  These issues are part of the background for today’s political unrest in Ukraine.

Speaking in 2000, Chukalov said:  “As we transition to the market economy, uneconomic mines are to be shut down, and they are the majority.   Out of the 300 mines in the Ukraine, 200 are to be closed.  This creates social issues to be addressed – what to do with the laid off miners?

This interview was originally broadcast in 2000 on WMMT 88.7 fm in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

I hope that this post provides context for the complex relationship between coal mining, industrialization and global politics.

Tom Hansell, March 2014

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Director’s note: Welcome to 2014

junction 2014photo courtesy of Robert Gipe, Harlan County, KY


As we move into the new year, I want to provide a brief update on the After Coal project.  The past year has been busy and exciting – our production team recorded more than 50 hours of interviews and location footage in the coalfields of central Appalachia and South Wales.

Some highlights of this past year’s work on After Coal include traveling to Wales, recording a rehearsal of Cor Meibion Onllwyn (The Onllwyn Male Voice Choir), and a tour of the historic Tower mine site in south Wales.  Closer to home in In Harlan County, Kentucky, we followed the Higher Ground project as they created the new community play: Foglights.  Higher Ground 4: Foglights played to sell out crowds at four historic sites throughout the county.  You can read project director Robert Gipe’s blog to learn more about this powerful project.

Throughout 2014 we will continue to tell the stories of how residents of coal mining communities are working to create a healthy hometown economy.  I hope you check the blog regularly for updates including:

  • an interactive music map of coal mining songs from Appalachia and Wales,
  • a resource guide of organizations in both regions working on issues of culture, leadership development, and economic transition,
  • and a new video clips from our work in progress

After Coal is both a documentary and a community engagement project, so we want to hear your voices.  Feel free to contact us with your questions and ideas via the comments section of this website or e-mail me:

Best wishes to you and yours for 2014

- Tom Hansell, director, After Coal project.

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Family Learning: A Foundation for Strong Communities

by Mair Francis, After Coal Project Adviser

I have been a Family Learning Commissioner for NIACE (The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education) England and Wales.  NIACE is a non-governmental organisation working for adult learners that advocates on behalf of adult learners and providers.  Its focus is on those who are least skilled, most disadvantaged and whose motivation, economic and social circumstances present barriers to engaging in learning.

The year long Inquiry into Family Learning was launched in October 2012 to gather new evidence of the impact of family learning, to develop new thinking and to influence public policy.

Mair Francis talks with community members at Croescrw Community Learning Centre in June, 2013.

Mair Francis talks with community members at Croescrw Community Learning Centre in June, 2013.

Research shows that family learning could increase the overall level of children’s development by as much as 15% for those from disadvantaged groups.

The recommendations for Wales were:

  1. Family Learning should be integral to school strategies to raise children’s attainment and to narrow the gap between the lowest and highest achievers.

  2. Family Learning should be a key element of adult learning and skills strategies to engage those furthest from the labour market and improve employability, especially through family language and maths provision.

  3. Every child should have the right to be part of a learning family.  Many children grow up in families that can support family learning but some do not.  Targeted support should be available for these families.

  4. Key government departments in England and Wales should include family learning in their policies and strategies in order to achieve cross-departmental outcomes.

  5. The governments of England and Wales should regularly review the funding for and supply of family learning against potential demand.

  6. There should be a joint national forum for family learning in England and Wales to support high quality, innovative practice, appropriate policy and advocacy, research and development.

For more detailed information on the recommendations please visit the NIACE website.

After Coal project advisor Mair Francis is a community organizer and author of numerous articles on women’s training and lifelong learning, including her history of the DOVE Workshop in Banwen. DOVE is a women’s training center in the Dulais Valley, of which Francis was founder and manager from 1985-1999.  She is currently the Senior Parliamentary Assistant for Dr. Hywel Francis, MP.

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Community Workers: You are the Heroes

by Angela Wiley

How can you become a successful community worker? What is counter hegemonic community development? What are alternatives to current power structures? These are just some of the questions Dean Cawsey explored in an interview with the After Coal production team this summer in Wales.

I didn’t develop the questions, schedule the interview, or check the audio levels on location. I had no idea who Dean Cawsey was. Yet, I found myself in a windowless office in Boone, North Carolina, pushing a tape labeled “Dean Cawsey 1” into the deck. For the countless time, I picked up my pen, hit the spacebar to begin playback, and began scratching time code on the margin of the legal pad. This is the work of documentary film. It is hours of preparation, even more hours of filming, and even (even) more hours of crunching media, taking notes, and weaving together the best moments. Don’t get me wrong — I love working on film projects, and love working on After Coal as a production assistant. However, in the monotony of media capture, I was unprepared for Cawsey’s testimony. I quickly realized I was trying to scribble every word into my log notes. Once the typed transcription was on my desk, half of the content was highlighted. I was truly inspired by the work Cawsey does in Wales, and felt refreshed to see the world (if for a moment) through his lens.

Angela Wiley, After Coal Production Assistant

Angela Wiley, After Coal Production Assistant.

As I listened, I was reminded of a popular quote from Fred Rogers, long time host of the U.S. TV show titled Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood quote:

It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” On this note, the following snapshot of Cawsey’s work is a note of encouragement to anyone working behind the scenes, in social services, to anyone trying to subvert oppressive systems, and to those that want to make an impact on the world.

Cawsey is the Communities First Cluster Manager in the Western Valleys region of Wales. For eleven years, he has been pursuing the program’s mission of “tackling poverty and social disadvantage”. Most people in the focus areas are directly in search of employment. Cawsey’s task is to involve clients in community services and classes where appropriate on their path to building a skill set. Another program goal is to work directly with organizations and social services to improve programming. In this sense, Cawsey’s job is to directly support communities by working intentionally with individuals and larger entities. Cawsey reflects that, “…whilst individuals are getting involved in a process where they can improve their chances of removing themselves personally from poverty, what they’re also doing is building community resilience and supporting that community”.

Even though I work in libraries and on creative projects like After Coal, I grapple with these issues each day. Patrons in the library enter and are looking for jobs, but need computer skills to fill out online applications. Participants in the After Coal documentary are both excited and apprehensive about what the future could offer for their regions. It is easy for me to get wrapped up in the tasks at hand, and forget the possibilities inherent in library work, or the potential impact of a given film. What I enjoyed most from listening to Cawsey was the context he was able to wrap around his work, even after a decade of formal dedication through Communities First.

Dean Cawsey walks in his neighborhood of Banwen, Wales.

Dean Cawsey walks in his neighborhood of Banwen, Wales.

Cawsey’s prerogative is to conduct work that undermines three interconnected “-isms” in western culture: capitalism, materialism, and individualism:

[Communities First] is about valuing community. It is about valuing collective action, and I think it is about promoting the benefits of getting involved in things that seek to achieve collective human well-being. I think [this] is what I’m about and I think it is what the program is all about…It’s absolutely essential to provide people with real alternatives to the current paradigm.”

The work in the Dulais Valley, and in communities all over the world is not 9-5. It requires workers to become embedded in the social fabric, it calls for active listening, creativity, and sometimes miraculous patience. To Dean Cawsey and to all those trying to improve their pocket of the world — thank you for what you do. And thank you in advance for continuing. We need you, and you are my hero.

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